As California Goes ... So Goes Welfare Reform?

Nation's biggest test of changes in public aid for needy

Suba Borapanya, a Laotian refugee, has lived here since 1983 on a $640-per-month welfare check. The new year brought news that he will have to do without it.

"They told me that since I am not a US citizen, I am no longer eligible as of this week," says the immigrant, who won political asylum 15 years ago. Legally blind, Mr. Borapanya says he can't find work and doesn't know where to turn.

He is among the first to feel the effects of federal welfare reform, which cuts off public assistance to legal immigrants. The effects are expected to be particularly acute in California, where 40 percent of the nation's legal immigrants reside.

But the state's legal resident aliens are not the only ones likely to be affected as the state continues a complete overhaul of its public-assistance programs to meet federal requirements. They, in fact, are only part of a huge welfare bureaucracy that includes 43,000 employees, 2.6 million aid recipients, and a $42 billion budget (larger than the gross national product of many countries).

With a welfare caseload that exceeds that of 21 other states combined, California will be closely watched for what will and won't pass muster as states end public-aid programs of 60 years' standing.

This week, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) outlined a stringent plan to end welfare dependency. If he can push his agenda through the Democratically controlled state legislature, California would have one of the most no-frills public-assistance programs in the US.

Among his proposals is a provision to cut off aid to new welfare recipients after one year - instead of the two allowed under federal law - unless they start working by then. Current welfare recipients would have up to two years to find a job.

Californians who are dropped from the welfare rolls could return after one year, according to the Wilson plan. Their lifetime limit on aid would be five years.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Wilson told the legislature: "This is the greatest challenge facing us this year. If we fail to address this before we adjourn, we fail not just taxpayers. More importantly, we fail the people whose lives we can so dramatically change for the better."

His other proposals include a requirement that mothers establish paternity for all of their children to receive benefits, a cut-off in aid for any adult recipient found to be abusing drugs or alcohol, and a cut in assistance to families whose children don't attend school or do not have required immunizations.

To come up with the proposals, Wilson's health and welfare chief, Sandra Smoley, held public forums from Oct. 24 to Nov. 18, attended by a bipartisan panel of state legislators and directors of 12 state departments. A separate, bipartisan task force also spent two months looking at what state Controller Kathleen Connell calls "the second chapter of welfare reform [after the reform bill]": job creation.

"Make no mistake about it, welfare reform will not succeed if we think the job-creation chapter will write itself," says Ms. Connell.

Wilson is likely to face stiff opposition to his proposal, and lawmakers, local officials, and others are likely to grapple with the issue of reform for much of the year. What is likely to emerge, political observers say, is a hard-fought compromise.

"The governor's proposal is just a starting point. This state has been in a holding pattern since the federal law passed, and now we are really anxious to design something that works better," says Margaret Pena, legislative representative for the California Association of Counties. "That won't come without the intense and constant participation from all sides and all levels of government."

Many officials at the local level fear that recipients cut off from federal aid will put undue pressure on already cash-strapped counties. But Ms. Pena says the counties, just like states who want more autonomy from Washington, have been clamoring for years for more responsibility and flexibility.

"Clearly our major concern is that we are not left holding the bag," says Pena. "But we feel we can meet our responsibility with flexibility without taking on risks that might become catastrophic."

The pressure on local entities to take up the slack has already increased. Because California last year enacted laws mandating across-the-board cuts in welfare disbursements (and was awaiting federal permission to do so until the August reform law made the request unnecessary), 785,389 welfare families have already received checks reflecting a 4.9 percent cut.

Already-slated welfare reforms in California include: In March, teenage moms on welfare must live with parents or other adults; in April, county welfare agents will deny food stamps to legal immigrants who have not worked in the US for 10 years; and in August, family benefit checks will no longer increase if the mother has another child while on welfare.

Many civil rights groups say California's legal immigrants and elderly recipients will be disproportionately affected in the switch to new laws. Some estimates say 5 percent of current recipients will bear the brunt of 50 percent of the cuts.

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